“Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think . . .”

It’s easy to recognize “bad” writing, but hard to identify the cause of bad writing. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker argues that the problem starts when writers make incorrect assumptions about their readers’ knowledge and vocabulary. Writers who are experts, for example, can be so familiar with their topics that they gloss over ideas that are unfamiliar to their readers. While Pinker uses scientific terms to describe this tendency (“chunking” and “functional fixity”), perhaps it should be noted that Aristotle came to the same conclusion 2000 years ago when he established the system of rhetoric, commonly taught in English courses.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Penguin Books, 2015, p. 75.


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